If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings — nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man my son!
I remember seeing the late Craig Arnold (a masterful showman, and one of the chiefest exceptions I ever saw to this post) read at Kenyon College in 1999 or so. During the Q&A, someone asked him who he’d been reading recently, and Arnold said Rudyard Kipling. The reaction to this response on the parts of most of the assembled was to laugh like it was a joke, wave it off like he was being deliberately provocative, or block it out and pretend it never really happened.
Kipling—aka the “White Man’s Burden” Guy—is best known to recent generations of poets not from English class, but from history class. On the rare occasions he is introduced as a poet rather than a sloganeer for imperialism, he is merely set up to be knocked down. And I don’t see why (I mean, yes, obviously I see why, I’m not an idiot, but hear me out). Take a poem like “If.” Although it has nothing directly to do with imperialism, “If” is often painted with the same broad brush as “White Man’s Burden”—and it is still, more or less, a stiff-upper-lip affair about suffering in silence even though you’re better than everyone. The double-masculinism of its final and most famous line, which many people—tellingly—mistakenly think is the poem’s title, doesn’t help its case with academics of course, nor does the air of persecution fantasy that reads today as so right-wing, nor does its wholly unironic use of cringe-worthy phrases like common touch. Although English teachers are by and large in the business of trying to make sentiments from the past accessible to students—of trying to demonstrate that something “old” isn’t necessarily as “lame” as a teenager tends to assume it is—they are happy to make an exception in this case: the “old” poem “If” is not only every bit as “lame” as a teenager assumes it is, but worse, and furthermore is in fact emblematic of why the past itself was lame.
But here’s the thing: FUCK YOU THIS POEM IS GOOD.
The way I see it, we condemn “If” for infractions also committed by any number of other poems and poets that we like just fine. It is hardly the only poem where a male speaker assumes a male reader. And as for persecution fantasies, is a single one of the Confessionals less guilty? (Berryman’s Dream Songs, for example, are not only just as paranoid as Kipling but nearly as racist, and without the excuse of having been written before freaking planes were invented, but are apotheosized across the board.) As for elitism, Kipling was no more upper-class than pretty much every single poet who wrote before the mid-19th century.
So the way I see it even more clearly, we don’t actually condemn “If” for these reasons at all. The real thing about this poem that upsets contemporary poets, or teachers, or just liberal intellectuals generally, is that it actually purports to give advice. The speaker is not imperiled. The speaker is not even particularly sad. The speaker is not even really present, aside from the strong implication that he too once had to deal with the litany of travails enumerated therein (I mean, of course he has, since he is awesome, and haven’t all awesome people had to deal with crap like that?).
And not any old advice, but advice about how to be strong, of all things. How to be a Man, for pete’s sake. There oughta be a law. In an age when I would not totally be kidding if I were to say that most poems genuinely amount to advice about how to be weak, “If” is just not okay.
And that’s why I love it so much. Over the course of the more-than-half-my-life I’ve spent trying hard to get better and better at poetry, I have learned many things, but assertiveness in the face of widespread and potentially violent opposition is not one of them. This poem helps me. Honest-to-goodness helps me, as in not just with how to write a poem but in my actual real life, in the tack-it-up-over-my-desk-and-read-it-every-morning sense, which is holy shit what normal people do with poems if and when they stumble across one that speaks to them. And I don’t think I’m anywhere near alone among contemporary poets in feeling like I severely lack what “If” is selling. I think the academics who roll their eyes at it protest too much. I think they—I think we—know we need it, and that scares us. Not just because it means that deep down we think being a Man actually means something, which makes us bad and wretched and unacceptable and impure liberal academics. But also because it freaks us out to need a poem for a reason besides heuristics about how to write another poem. And by extension, nudges us towards the conclusion that, if it is not only possible but superior for people to need poems for any other reason, this means that a comically huge percentage of all the poetry that has been written in America in the last couple decades is, you know, a complete waste of time. (“If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,” anyone?)
But look, the fact that it just sounds better that way aside, we can easily ignore the “be a Man” bit. There’s nothing at all gendered in the rest of the poem—it is good advice for men and women equally (some of it perhaps for women even more so: “Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies” strikes me as a particularly useful saw for a junior-high girl who wishes to rise above the pack). And what’s so problematic about the theme of suffering in silence even though you’re better than everyone? Poets and teachers should understand this better than anybody. (I mean, hey, take “White Man’s Burden” and replace the term White Man’s with Smart Person’s and it is just a poem about being a teacher, and a pretty spot-on one at that.)
The history of Western Civilization is regularly and predictably punctuated by intense periods of people losing their shit and blaming it on us (i.e., smart people), so why should we feel so guilty about liking the opening two lines of this poem? We are more entitled to like it than anybody. The lifelong, soul-crushing paradox of how to deal with stupid people’s automatic dismissals of anything we say and how best to get them to change their minds about everything that makes them who they are while still “respecting” them drives us up the pole from cradle to grave, and lines 3 and 4 nail it with elegance to spare. Yes, a Tea Partier might well read this and think Kipling is addressing him, instead of us. But the fact that idiots are wrong about things is what makes them idiots. It would be a bad idea to cede the concept of fortitude to idiots, just like it was a bad idea to cede patriotism to them.
We cannot be so afraid of occasionally liking the same things as idiots. Our letting idiots have all the stuff that people like is what makes idiots popular, and this just creates more idiots. We will just have to content ourselves with knowing that we like these things for better reasons. If you anticipate that liking some of the same things as idiots might make people on your own side judge and label you, and that this will be hard to deal with, then I refer you to THIS POEM.
But that just brings us back to the central fear: the fact that this poem gives advice about what to do in real life (besides write poems). There is no ambiguity. Since advice that you have to figure out or that might mean two things at the same time would be pretty shitty advice, “If” tells you straight-up in memorable, stone-tablets verse what you are supposed to do to win at life. And questioning our assumption that no ambiguity equals a bad poem is terrifying, since it forces us to ask ourselves the direct question of what it is that a good poem is supposed to do. And the answer just might be “something besides simply be a good poem,” which is not only terrifying but maddening.
When we cross the line in the sand that separates poem-advice giving from life-advice giving, the poet ceases merely to be someone who has honed a very particular and practically useless skill and becomes an “authority,” in a sense that we thought we had dispensed with somewhere around the time we stopped giving terminal “-ed”s their own syllable. But I have no problem with seeing Kipling as an authority here. What better evidence is there that someone is qualified to give good advice than the fact that the advice they give is good? This doesn’t mean Rudyard Kipling would have been qualified to fix my car or remove my appendix, but I’m not asking him to. I’m asking him to be the guy who wrote “If,” a poem that I think should appear on page one of the Handbook for Smart People.
Unfortunately, he is also the guy who wrote “White Man’s Burden,” so that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.